April 11, 2014

Mimicking our heroes

Batting stance, bowling run-up, shuffling, adjusting equipment - there's something about cricketers' idiosyncrasies that makes us want to copy them

King Viv: emulate at your own risk © PA Photos

This week I found myself laughing at a YouTube video in which a hyped-up club player charges out to bat, face-plants and then gets bowled for a golden duck. I watched it more than a couple of times, if I'm honest, and it got me wondering about the ways in which I myself had been influenced over the years by the rituals and idiosyncratic routines of international players.

It starts from a young age. Even on an overcast day in the backyard, one of my brothers would often plaster his face with zinc in a pattern influenced by Australian fast bowler Craig McDermott. We'd bat around the wrong way and try to mimic Allan Border's distinct bobbing at the crease, or run in to bowl from an angle in the style of Merv Hughes. Aping the bowling actions of Peter Taylor, Greg Matthews and Waqar Younis, sometimes in the space of a couple of deliveries, eventually came to us subconsciously.

It wasn't just us, either. We've all been there. In a club game in the late '90s I remember hearing howls of laughter from the field as I walked back to my bowling marker because an opposition player had attempted to mark his guard in the style of Shivnarine Chanderpaul: removing one bail and hammering it into the turf in the distinctive style of the West Indies batsman. I wasn't above bowling with a small white towel hanging from my pants to shine the ball, so I was hardly in a position to judge.

These tics and habits have always been a source of fascination. The way David Boon scratched around the crease and "gardened" the pitch while purposefully readjusting his protector was as much part of the legend of Boon as the moustache and that oft-discussed flight to Heathrow. When the player in that YouTube clip fell over, he looked ridiculous obviously, but that same type of ritual is enacted on an almost daily basis wherever there is cricket played. David Warner does it, Justin Langer did it; someone down at your club probably does. In ten years' time it might be skipping, or running backwards, that's de rigueur.

My favourite of these rituals - and it wasn't really even a ritual so much as body language and an inherent ability to project dominance - was the way Viv Richards strolled to the crease. Viv didn't need to windmill his arms or play phantom strokes on the run. (And just how helpful was that routine to a player like Ricky Ponting, often pinned lbw early on as he lunged forward too extravagantly?) "Swagger" is an understatement for Viv's entry to the crease.

Others are more subtle and often not engaged in it for the sake of intimidation. The stutter-step at the top of Ben Hilfenhaus' run-up is one that many would-be fast bowlers could identify with. Maybe there was no reason why they started doing it, but once they did it felt unnatural to stop, or they'd think twice about it and it would disrupt their rhythm. So it sticks and enters the realm of automation, or maybe even superstition.

For Jonathan Trott and Derek Randall, both famous for their fidgeting and endless adjustments of pads and equipment while preparing to take guard, the ritualistic fussing was clearly beyond control. It was as much a part of their batting as footwork and watching the ball from the bowler's hand. A rare piece of engaging commentary during the recent World T20 focused on the reluctance of many modern players to wear "inners" inside their batting gloves and lose their "feel" on the bat handle. As a result, many undo or take their gloves off completely while they are off strike in order to air them out. These habits and customs evolve as interestingly as any aspect of the game.

Recently while looking for a cricket helmet in the shed I happened upon my very first thigh pad, a small and yellowing Gray-Nicolls one. It must have been from the early '90s, because, having seen a photo of Mark Waugh using a Biro to inscribe a new addition to the rows of scores he'd written on his own, I'd taken up the habit myself. It made me think of a time and also the places in which I'd made those (far less impressive) scores. It was a pointless exercise and slightly embarrassing, but the memory of it made me smile.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here